by Jamia Wilson (with reporting by Samantha Leach) via glamour.com
Before Black Panther celebrated the all-female freedom fighters of Wakanda, real-life black women formed their own type of special-forces unit in Alabama. When a whopping 98 percent of African American women voters united behind Doug Jones, they were able to elect him as the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years. They didn’t just defeat Roy Moore; they rocked the political status quo.
They have no intention of stopping there.
An unprecedented groundswell of at least 70 black women have launched electoral campaigns across Alabama for local, state, and national offices in 2018, according to the nonprofit Emerge America, which trains women to run for office. While this echoes a national trend (the Black Women in Politics database lists 590 black female candidates across the country, 97 of them for federal seats), experts say the numbers in Alabama are particularly striking. From first-time hopefuls to seasoned veterans, twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings, women are lining up to disrupt the mostly white, mostly Republican old boys’ club in the state. (Only two black women are running as Republicans in Alabama this year, both for local seats, according to the state’s GOP office.) “African Americans are a quarter of the population here, yet they aren’t seeing their issues front and center,” says Rhonda Briggins, a co-founder of VoteRunLead and an Alabama native, “so they’ve decided to run themselves.”
Representative Terri Sewell, 53, who’s up for re-election this year, was the first black woman to represent Alabama in Congress when she was elected in 2011. “As a congressional intern during the late eighties, I remember walking the halls of the Capitol and not seeing many black women in any role, let alone as elected officials,” she says. “When I was first elected, making my voice heard as a black woman surrounded by older white men was a challenge. This year we’re proving the strength of our voice at the ballot box.”
Ironically, it was the election of a white guy—thanks to the record-breaking mobilization of black women—that motivated many of these candidates to jump into the race. “After so many black women carried Doug Jones over the threshold, I think more women across the state began to see our political power,” says Ashley Smith, 34, a Montgomery native running for district judge in Lowndes County.
Wendy Smooth, Ph.D., a political scientist at Ohio State University, agrees the high voter turnout in last December’s special election inspired black women candidates to tap into the political momentum. “There was this robust energy, and once energy like that has been released, it doesn’t go away,” she says. “And once women learn [how to] get a candidate elected into office, a lightbulb comes on and they say, ‘This isn’t that hard after all. I too can do this.’ ” But, she’s quick to point out, the uptick of black candidates in Alabama and beyond is not just reactionary. These candidates are building on a tradition of activism among black women that’s resulted in major social progress. They’ve done the work, using their coalition-based organizing methods, to fight voter suppression, help Barack Obama win the presidency, and change the game in the special elections. Running for political office is a key part of their strategy.
Briggins emphasizes that these women are making deliberate next steps in a larger blueprint for change, in both their communities and the country, noting how past seeds laid the groundwork for growth. “Women are primarily the workers behind the Alabama New South Coalition and Alabama Democratic Conference, organizations that, since the civil rights movement, have become the foundation of black political power in Alabama,” she says.
All that boots-on-the ground work has also given women invaluable experience. “We know we can do these jobs because we’ve been behind the scenes, whether it is assisting someone in doing the job, or doing it and not getting the recognition,” says Marshell Jackson Hatcher, 51, a lawyer running for Jefferson County circuit court judge. “This time we wanted to put ourselves out there for elected positions.” Briggins agrees: “Black women are moving from winning elections for others to winning elections for themselves.”
These rising stars recognize they are following in the footsteps of their trailblazing black Alabama sisters, women like Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, Condoleezza Rice—and their own mothers and grandmothers. State House candidate Arlene Easley, 54, was a child in the Jim Crow era. She recalls asking her mother why her family had to sit at the back of city buses and remembers being harassed by white parents during the integration of her elementary school. Those experiences bring vital perspective to today’s policy making, she says. “While we don’t have Jim Crow, the question is, Are there things that are legislated that are Jim Crow–esque? Those are things I, as a woman of color and longtime resident of Mobile, can compare and contrast. And I can take that with me to Montgomery to ensure that we as a state are not moving backward.”
Facing Down Challenges
The question is not whether these candidates have what it takes to lead the state into a more just future; it’s whether they will receive equal access to the resources, institutional support, and megaphones needed to win. “Yes, black women are coming in as amazing insurgent candidates,” says Smooth. “But pay attention to how many of them are formally endorsed, [which is a sign of] their parties’ support and belief that these candidates are viable.” In surveys women of color report that when they first ran for office, they received less party support than they’d hoped, or were even discouraged from running. (The Alabama Democratic party says it won’t make any endorsements before the primary election, which this year falls on June 5.) Studies also show that female candidates receive less media coverage and are more likely to have their messages misrepresented.
These women aren’t waiting for state and national parties to climb on board. Many pointed to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress (representing New York) 50 years ago, as a role model who inspired their campaigns, and they subscribe to her strategy: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” They are pooling their resources in other ways, getting help from organizations like Emerge, VoteRunLead, and Higher Heights for America—and one another. From 28-year-old Chuantae Brown, who is running for district judge in Jefferson County, to 62-year-old Army reservist Audri Scott Williams, a Democrat running for Congress against an outspoken NRA-supporting incumbent, these candidates agree that working together shows the public that more diverse leadership benefits everyone. “We realize it, and now the public is realizing it. We have the tools to be elected,” Brown says. “I want it to be normal for a black woman to run for Congress, for president, for anything, just like it’s normal for a white man.”
When asked what change they will ignite if they win, they talk of criminal justice reform, improved access to education, student debt relief, and more inclusive government. And they quickly show how they will reframe the debate. As Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, 62, who’s running for reelection said, “Not if, when I win.”